Some things never change. That may be a hard concept to wrap one’s head around in an era in which childlike things – the ones we were originally supposed to abandon as we reached maturity – grew up along with us. Batman can be a metaphor for the Bush administration. LEGO building blocks can represent the crumbling divide between mundane humanity and the absolute divine. But the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have escaped that fate, and rather appropriately so. At its best this franchise was always about that moment when adolescent self-involvement graduated into mature self-sacrifice. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles actually belongs in a permanent state of arrested development, because evolving any further would leave the children who actually needed that message alone, abandoned and wondering what the hell happened.
So that this new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie was made specifically for kids should come as no surprise. Jonathan Liebesman’s reboot of the movie franchise attempts to relate to the children of today in very much the same manner that the cartoons, comics and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies did back in the 1990s, by flaunting the pop culture obsessions of a new generation and baffling all the adults in the process. The only difference is that now the adults of the 21st Century actually expect a movie called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (of all things) to appeal to them. And really, whose fault is that?
It’s not very good, of course. The plot is insipid, both simple and unnecessarily complicated in equal measure. The pace is so fast your brain would need a high-speed internet connection to simply follow along (or at least an awful lot of sugar). The character development is nonexistent. The action sequences are occasionally nifty – there’s a really cool high-speed chase down a mountainside – but typically bloated and ridiculous; or at least, more ridiculous than they really have to be.
None of these failings were necessary to bring Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to life, naturally. Movies for children can be just as coherent and dramatic as movies made for any other demographic. But although Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fails as a proper movie it does at least capture a certain childish energy that has a place in popular culture and in which I can find no particular fault all by itself.
The basic plot is the same as always. The heroes are turtles who have been mutated into teenaged ninjas. They are still named Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael. Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines (that’s a fact, jack), Raphael is cool but admittedly crude, and Michelangelo remains – as he always must – a party dude. They fight a gang of villains called The Foot Clan, led by a razor-sharp ninja called The Shredder, and by god in heaven they eat a lot of pizza.
But then there are the unnecessary changes, and few of them are an improvement. They now favor Pizza Hut instead of Dominos (an obvious downgrade), and although they still team up with a plucky reporter named April O’Neil (Megan Fox), it now turns out that her father created the hero-spawning mutagen in the first place for an evil corporation, and that he died while trying to protect his daughter from the dastardly ramifications of his research. Add in a climactic battle atop a New York City skyscraper as the superheroes with animal powers try to stop a mad scientist from unleashing a deadly gas spawned from all the research that created them in the first place and you’ve got a distractingly obvious ripoff of the plot that Amazing Spider-Man couldn’t even make work in the first place.
But the difference between Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Amazing Spider-Man – or at least, the biggest difference – is that Jonathan Liebesman’s film doesn’t expect you to take it seriously. There’s no angst in this new franchise, no elaborate metaphor and no ambition to speak of. And although you could argue that that is in and of itself a problem, at it least smoothes out Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ many, many flaws. It’s a ridiculous and pandering movie that doesn’t pretend to be otherwise, and while that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous or pandering, it does allow one to simply shut off their brain and appreciate it on its own, extremely limited merits. It’s a film for eight-year-olds that adults shouldn’t expect to appreciate, let alone understand, and I refuse to be the one who dumps all their stinky poop on that party.
Long, long ago, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles asked us to give them a break. I’m willing to oblige them. Their new movie is bad, but just this once… that’s okay.